Budget cut may trim prosecutors’ ranks
Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht decided that county prosecutors would no longer participate in open coroner’s inquests, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Thursday.
Zappala added that looming county budget cuts would have forced him to make the same decision.
“If the budget as proposed passes, it will greatly impact my ability to participate in these matters throughout the county,” Zappala said at a news conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
Zappala said county Chief Executive Jim Roddey’s proposed plan to cut the district attorney’s office budget from $10 million this year to $9.4 million next year might result in the loss of 30 jobs in his office and also could force him to pull prosecutors from preliminary hearings before district justices.
Margaret Philbin, a spokeswoman for Roddey, said the chief executive believes the district attorney’s office has been given an adequate budget. Roddey is critical of Zappala’s office having investigators, who duplicate the Allegheny County police, she said.
“(Roddey) does not see the need to pay for a duplicate police force,” Philbin said.
Wecht said on Wednesday that assistant district attorneys would no longer participate in open inquests conducted by his office. He said it was a mutual decision with Zappala. Yesterday, after Zappala’s news conference, Wecht said he had made the first move.
“I’m the one who came up with it, but he concurred,” Wecht said.
The policy shift comes after Wecht and Zappala came to opposite conclusions about whether charges should be filed in several high-profile cases.
Both men insist there’s no friction between their offices.
Zappala said he and Wecht have long been close friends and have talked about ending the decades-old practice of having assistant district attorneys serve at inquests.
During these hearings, district justices hear evidence presented by prosecutors and decide whether defendants should face trial on criminal charges.
District Justice Richard G. King, president of the Allegheny County Special Court Judges Association, said yesterday that the absence of county prosecutors at preliminary hearings would have “a devastating impact.”
Police act as prosecutors during preliminary hearings for speeding tickets and other minor cases, King said, but they are not trained to handle serious crimes.
“It would leave just the police officers to prosecute the cases,” King said. “A lot of good police work could risk going down the drain.”
District justices in some counties conduct preliminary hearings without assistant district attorneys, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Administrative Office of the Courts. Assistant district attorneys usually are assigned to preliminary hearings for major cases such as murders, Heinz said.
During an open inquest, a hearing officer appointed by the coroner’s office hears evidence about a death, and the coroner decides the manner and cause. The coroner can recommend criminal charges, but the district attorney decides whether to file them and prosecute.
Following an inquest earlier this month into the death of University of Pittsburgh football player Billy Gaines, Deputy Coroner Timothy G. Uhrich dropped an involuntary manslaughter charge Zappala’s office had filed against the Rev. Henry Krawczyk.
Zappala refiled the involuntary manslaughter charge against the priest, who is accused of supplying the 19-year-old with liquor before he fell to his death in June at St. Anne Church in Homestead.
In the 2002 death of ironworker Paul Corsi Jr. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Wecht’s office recommended involuntary manslaughter charges against the Dick Corp. construction firm. Zappala decided not to file them.
Zappala said he will decide shortly whether to file criminal charges in two police shootings. In both cases, Wecht recommended police be charged.
Zappala said that differences of opinion with Wecht over any case did not play a role in removing prosecutors from open inquests.